Zero Mostel has always been one of my favorite actors. Even though I only saw him perform in a handful of movies, most notably The Producers, he seemed to come alive through his comic numbers or poignant ballads in the original cast recordings of both A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Fiddler on the Roof.
Bringing such an iconoclastic, bigger-than-life personality as Zero Mostel to life is no easy feat, but Jim Brochu, in his one man show, Zero Hour, thoroughly captures the essence of Mostel the comedian, actor, and painter.
The painting studio is the setting for the show as Mostel grudgingly sits for an interview with an unseen reporter. Actually, sitting would be the wrong word as Brochu, a large man himself, just like Mostel, is constantly in motion on the small stage at the Actor’s Temple Theater, an actual synagogue that rents out its sanctuary space part of the week as an Off-Broadway theater. Sparring with the reporter, peppering his answers with good-natured ribbing, we slowly get to know the Zero Mostel behind the exuberance and gaiety portrayed on stage and screen. We learn about his loving marriage to a Catholic woman, a move that exiled him from his highly religious, Jewish parents. Even on his mother’s deathbed she would not forgive his transgression. There is the beginning of his high-spirited and flamboyant career, first in nightclubs and then onto the stage.
The most moving and dramatic part of the 90 minute, intermission-less production centers around the Hollywood blacklist. Not only was Mostel ensnared in the hysteria produced by the hearings and recriminations of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and Senator Joseph McCarthy, but so were many of his friends and colleagues. Flourishing careers were snuffed out in a heartbeat while others committed suicide. The more fortunate actors, such as Mostel, were out-of-work for only a couple of years, but still shunned by many of his acting brethren. At one point during the show Mostel relives the seemingly doomed out-of-town tryouts of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Brought in to fix the musical is Jerome Robbins, a man who named names to the Committee on Un-American Activities, sending many of Mostel’s friends on the path to oblivion. A pariah in the actor’s eyes, he agrees with producer Hal Prince to let Robbins work his genius to save the show, but not without delivering, at the first rehearsal, a blistering speech eviscerating the acknowledged director/choreographer for his past deed.
The back-story of Forum as well as his recollections of Fiddler on the Roof are just a small part of Zero Hour. There is no singing or dancing. The production is really about the Zero Mostel the public never knew—the suffering and tortured artist who, in reality, just wanted to be a painter.
Jim Brochu, who also wrote the show, eerily conjures up Mostel in both speech and girth. Friends in real life, Brochu serves himself well by not trying to recreate memorable moments from Mostel’s past that could easily turn into parody or self-serving aggrandizement. Instead, he keeps the audience enraptured with personal stories that captivate, enthrall, and charm.